‘Serve, Accompany, Defend’: 40 years of Centro Astalli’s journey with refugees

Federico Lombardi, SJ

 Federico Lombardi, SJ / Mission / Published Date:21 December 2021/Last Updated Date:19 January 2022

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“I express my closeness to the thousands of migrants, refugees and others in need of protection in Libya. I never forget you. I hear your cries and I pray for you. Many of these men, women and children are subjected to inhuman violence. Once again I call on the international community to keep its promises to seek shared, effective and lasting solutions for the management of migratory flows in Libya and throughout the Mediterranean. O how those who are turned away suffer! There are real ‘lagers’ (concentration camps) there. We must put an end to the return of migrants to unsafe countries and give priority to saving lives at sea, with reliable means of rescue and disembarkation , guaranteeing them decent living conditions, alternatives to detention, regular migration routes and access to asylum procedures. Let us all feel responsible for these brothers and sisters of ours who have been victims of this very serious situation for too many years.”

These are the words Pope Francis, pronounced with gravitas after the Angelus on Sunday, October 24, as a new wave of migrants from Africa and the Middle East attempted to reach Europe after a drop in numbers due to the pandemic.

The substance of the problem is no different from the past. Nor has the stance of Pope Francis changed: these are people – not numbers! – driven to face high risks and suffering, in search of a free and dignified life, fleeing from situations that have become unbearable for them.

La Civilta Cattolica

“I spent three years in Sudanese prisons. If I close my eyes, only the darkness and the silence come back to mind. Time never seemed to pass… After three years in Sudan I thought I was ready to face Libyan prisons. But, believe me, no one can ever be ready for those… They threw us back in the cell…. I have never seen so much violence all at once. I can’t find the words. But what takes your breath away is not so much what you go through yourself. If you’re a man you get by, more or less. It’s what you see and hear around you. It’s the looks and screams of women. I can’t tell you how much I missed the silence and darkness that threatened to drive me mad in Sudan! In Libya, I learned that there are men who are not  human at all .”

“I got to know the prisons of Kufra and Misrata  where I was imprisoned for months. They are hallucinating places of torture and violence where you have no escape. We were women,  dozens and dozens of us all crammed into a tiny room. They offered you the chance to take a shower for the sole purpose of being able to abuse you. My cellmates spent hours erasing fingerprints from their hands and treating their feet, rubbing a chemical substance on their fingertips that would prevent any kind of recognition once they arrived in Europe. Of the small group of girls to which I belonged, I was the only one still in prison because I had no money. The others, having bribed the guards, managed to escape. I learned months later that the boat they were traveling in had been wrecked with the loss of all its passengers. Their dreams had vanished, as had their fingerprints months before. Erased by the sea.”

These are short passages of much longer stories that are beyond our ordinary imagination.[1] Listening to the stories is a necessary way to understand what this is all about and to engage in a real response to the problems of refugees. Similarly, listening to victims of sexual abuse has been and remains the starting point for addressing their problems. It is in this way that, beyond an initial  welcome or attempts at relief,  motivated by compassion for a  situation of obvious need, a process of accompaniment is set in motion, aiming at the recovery of the dignity of persons and their reintegration into the human community.

The first steps of a new commitment

The history of Centro Astalli, the association founded by the Jesuits in Rome for refugees and now spread in various forms to other Italian cities, began forty years ago, in 1981, after the Jesuit Superior General, Father Pedro Arrupe, moved by the tragedy of the boat people fleeing Vietnam, proposed to the whole Society of Jesus that it commit itself to helping refugees in different parts of the world. At that time in the center of Rome – for example, in the gardens of Piazza Venezia – there were many Ethiopian refugees, fleeing the violent oppression of Major Mengistu’s regime.  It was almost the obvious response to set up a first form of welcome for them, offering a hot meal every day in the basement rooms of the large building behind the Gesù church, with an entrance from Via degli Astalli. The Communities of Christian Life, which at that time met in those rooms, offered the space and the first nucleus of volunteers. Over the years they would become hundreds, a real army of volunteers strongly united by a common spirit of service. Several Jesuits became directly involved in the enterprise along with the volunteers, but they were not dedicated to it full-time.

It was Groum Tesfaye, the only Ethiopian then in the Jesuits, who was the first to devote himself totally to the work, called expressly to Rome from Canada in 1983 by the Jesuit Superior General, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Arrupe’s successor. It became possible to get closer to people, with Groum understanding and speaking their language and knowing their culture in depth. Thus we moved from emergency assistance to the journey with refugees that we were trying to make, according to Fr. Arrupe’s original inspiration, but which we were not yet able to achieve as we desired. Fr. Groum and his generous work were welcomed with great gratitude by the refugees and with great enthusiasm by the volunteers: they were never forgotten, even when he left to complete his studies and then returned to work in his homeland.

Fr. Kolvenbach did not fail to observe that, not far from the Astalli, 440 years earlier, in the rooms where they then lived, Saint Ignatius and his first companions had hosted and cared for hundreds of poor and sick Romans, struck by a severe famine. This occurred precisely during the period when that original group of apostles, trained at the University of Paris, was reflecting and then deciding to found the Society of Jesus together. Attentiveness to a needy situation was part of the DNA of the new Order: the service of faith and the exercise of charity, love of God and love of the  neighbor in difficulty could not be separated.

In those same years when the Centro Astalli was emerging, following well-documented social transformations, this attentiveness was being brought back into focus among the Italian Jesuits. In small numbers, but following a precise and determined choice, there had previously been groups of Jesuits who had dedicated themselves with generosity and passion to the mission of the workers, also doing manual work. They were clearly experiencing the social changes and the growing concern about the “new poverty,” the forms of marginalization resulting from the spread of drug addiction among young people, the large number of immigrants from the “Third World.”[2] Thus on Fr. Groum’s departure, Carlo Sorbi, who came from the workers’ mission, took on the mission of being responsible for the Centro Astalli and its further development with enthusiasm and full commitment.

The flow of immigrants and refugees was not limited to the first waves from the Horn of Africa. It changed, continued and expanded. Many managed to reach a new destination, but others were arriving, arriving  from the Balkans, from Liberia, from Angola, from Sudan and then, from the end of 1995, a great many Kurds. Then there were the Congolese, the Syrians, refugees from Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Iraq, to name a few. Those who thought these were temporary problems were completely mistaken.

Of course, the basic necessities of survival, eating and sleeping, had to be met. The canteen and sleeping quarters are an indispensable service. But they are not enough. The listening center, the legal advice and guidance service, the medical clinic, the school, among other means of support are also necessary to “serve, accompany and defend” the refugees, as Fr. Arrupe indicated from the beginning.

Centro Astalli expands

The Annual Reports document the activity of the center and its growth in these different dimensions of service. In Rome, in 2020, marked by the difficulties of the pandemic, the canteen distributed more than 55,000 meals and managed eight reception centers of different types (for men, for single women or women with children, for families, for minors).

Naturally an activity of this kind must be part of a wider network of institutions and initiatives that operate in the field, both to gain access to public financing, and to promote coordinated interventions to deal with the political, legal and social problems posed by the realities of immigration and asylum. In Rome there are other important Christian presences, such as Caritas, the Community of Sant’Egidio, the Federation of Evangelical Churches, with which one must keep in contact. But there is also the important experience of collaboration with public institutions. One example is that of the ASL Roma 1, where the Samifo (Health Centre for Forced Migrants) was set up in 2006, in which public health workers and private social workers, specialized in listening to and welcoming migrants, collaborate.

Over time, the experience of Centro Astalli has become a point of reference and support for several other similar initiatives, mostly linked to the Jesuits and their collaborators, in various Italian cities: Catania, Palermo, Grumo Nevano (Na), Padua, Trento, Bologna. Beginning in the early 2000s, these centers have been working in conjunction, carrying out possible and appropriate activities in these localities:  There is the advantage of having developed through experience a “model” that can inspire and encourage responses to problems that are now widely in evidence throughout the country. This network offers an important contribution: in 2020 it served 17,000  in need and hosted 882 people in reception centers.

All this cannot happen without the generous contribution of volunteers. The Jesuits know this very well. In 2020 there were more than 400 volunteers and they are an essential force in the dynamics of the center. Nawal, an Algerian refugee woman who has managed to find dignity and work, testified: “I have seen Centro Astalli grow, adapt to the needs of the new migratory flows in Italy and design new ways of welcoming and integrating refugees. In my opinion, so much vitality is given by the invaluable presence of the many volunteers. They are the soul of the reception centers, the outpatient clinic, the Italian school, the canteen: they offer their time and skills for free and their motivation is so strong that they are always offering new ideas and energy. Centro Astalli lives thanks to them, and for this reason, in a period of great crisis for the third sector, it is able to plan new services.”[3]

The closeness of the pope, the cultural dimension and the defense of rights

In more recent years, the center has received constant and strong encouragement from Pope Francis. We all remember how he wanted to go to Lampedusa shortly after the beginning of his pontificate, on July 8, 2013, to give a more than eloquent sign of his concern for migrants and refugees. Fr. Giovanni La Manna, then in charge of the center, lost no time in inviting the pope to personally visit the premises in Via degli Astalli. The response was immediately positive. I remember it well because it was I who brought him the request. I was stunned when a day or two later Fr. Giovanni told me that the pope had replied that he would go, although he could not yet specify the date. On September 10, Pope Francis met with 400 immigrants in the cafeteria and the various services, and then all together in the Gesù Church, where he also visited the tomb of Fr. Arrupe. It was his second gesture of meeting with those forced to migrate, no longer on the shores of the sea, but in the center of “his” city. The speech was an ample commentary on the already mentioned motto of Arrupe: “serve, accompany, defend.”

Here are his words: “In recent years Centro Astalli has progressed. At the outset it offered services of basic hospitality: a soup-kitchen, a place to sleep, legal assistance. It then learned to accompany people in their search for a job and to fit into society. Then it also proposed cultural activities so as to contribute to increasing a culture of acceptance, a culture of encounter and solidarity, starting with the safeguarding of human rights. Accompaniment on its own is not enough. It is not enough to offer someone a sandwich unless it is accompanied by the possibility of learning how to stand on one’s own two feet. Charity that leaves the poor as they are is not sufficient. True mercy, the mercy God shows to  us and teaches us, demands justice. It demands that the poor find the way to be poor no longer.”

Indeed, the “cultural” aspect is very present in the life of the center, not only with the Italian school – which during the pandemic, despite the difficulties, was continued even through mobile phones – but also with other institutions, such as the collaboration with the art laboratory of Palazzo delle Esposizioni. The “culture of encounter” also promotes  various projects so that the surrounding society knows and understands migrants, in order to welcome them in their dignity and allow them to be the agents of their own integration. Activities in middle and high schools are therefore fundamental, so that young people can meet refugees and volunteers, or learn about the main religious identities present in Italy. In 2020 alone, almost 15,000 students were involved in the framework of various projects. There have also been some particularly valuable publications of books that collect personal stories of migrants and leave an indelible impression on the reader, opening up profound glimpses of unimaginable journeys of suffering, courage and hope. We recall three volumes in particular whose titles can be translated as ‘The Night of Escape’, ‘Lands Without Promise. Stories of refugees in Italy’ and ‘I am With You. Brigitte’s story’ by Melania Mazzucco.[4]

Having recognized the personhood of the migrant refugees in their wounded dignity, which is neither guaranteed nor expressed, it becomes an imperative obligation to assume their defense. This is the third term of Fr. Arrupe’s mandate – to defend – often reiterated under the English term “advocacy”. Beyond the help provided  to migrants in the legal field to obtain residency and protection to which they are entitled, Centro Astalli has always expressed itself in a constructive spirit and with  great critical freedom on Italian immigration policies, for example the Martelli law of 1990, the Dini decree of 1995, the Turco-Napolitano law of 1998, the Bossi-Fini law of 2002,  as well as Italian and European regulations and interventions of recent years. Currently, it participates in numerous campaigns and initiatives to defend the rights of refugees and to raise awareness in society on issues concerning them. For this reason it naturally links up with many other institutions.

Current campaigns include “Ero straniero – l’umanità che fa bene” (I was a foreigner – the humanity that does good), underway since 2017 to support a popular initiative to change immigration policies in Italy; “L’Italia sono anch’io” (Italy is me too), for a new citizenship law more suited to the Italian reality in favor of one million children born or raised in Italy who continue to be considered foreigners; “Io accolgo” (I welcome), to expand a network that shares the values of hospitality and solidarity toward migrants. Centro Astalli participates in the ecumenical prayer “Dying of hope,” to remember the victims who have died in the course of migration (in 2020 at least 1,773 deaths at the borders of Europe). It participates in the National Asylum Table and the Migrant Minors Table, which bring together the main protection bodies in Italy, to monitor the problems, denounce the inhuman conditions, to propose integration and protection plans. In short, it is a continuous commitment that requires experience and competence and must take into account the changing situations.

The pandemic, for example, has had a great influence not only on the situations of the poorest and most vulnerable people and on the forms of intervention in their favor, but also on the perception of the urgency of the problems by the people in general and politicians. Centro Astalli is a place where these problems are experienced directly, and therefore can be discussed and expressed from the point of view of the weakest. An effective demonstration of this is the small volume in which Fr. Camillo Ripamonti, its current president, responds with decisive competence to the many questions concerning “rights, marginalization and migrants at the time of the pandemic.”[5] Covid-19 did not find us all equal and did not make us so. For people living on the margins, for the invisible, the pandemic has been a real trap. For Fr. Ripamonti and his collaborators, to free themselves from the trap of the virus is to lift up their frightened gaze and look beyond themselves, thus meeting the face of the poor; it is to recover that mutual trust which alone can nourish friendship and social fraternity. In this sense, the broad perspective in which to move is precisely that indicated by Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti.

For an ecclesial community open to solidarity

Finally, we do not want to forget that Pope Francis chose his visit to Centro Astalli to launch an appeal for solidarity and hospitality directed at religious institutes to make space and resources available. His words, at the time, caused a certain stir: “For the whole Church it is important that the welcoming of the poor and the promotion of justice not be entrusted only to ‘specialists,’ but be a focus of all pastoral care, of the formation of future priests and religious, of the normal commitment of all parishes, movements and church groups. In particular – and this is important and I say this from the heart – I would also like to invite Religious Institutes to read seriously and responsibly this sign of the times. The Lord is calling us to live more courageously and generously in welcoming people into communities, into homes, into empty convents. Dear men and women religious, the Church does not need empty convents to be  turned  into hotels and earn money. The empty convents are not yours, they are for the flesh of Christ who are the refugees. The Lord calls us to live with more courage and generosity, extending a welcome in the communities, in the houses, in the empty convents. […] We do so much, perhaps we are called to do more, welcoming and sharing decisively what Providence has given us  We need communities in solidarity that live love in a concrete way!”

It has sometimes been said that subsequently “nothing happened.” While more can and must always be done, this statement is not entirely true. In a recent interview, Fr. Ripamonti recalls that since then Centro Astalli has deepened and strengthened its collaboration with various religious institutes: “Eight years later, many religious bodies have opened their doors and made themselves available to accompany refugees (thirty in Rome).”[6]

Particular mention should be made of the “Hospitality Communities” project, which since 2014 has aimed to facilitate the delicate transition from assisted reception to independent living for refugees. There are currently 21 religious communities in Rome that, in collaboration with Centro Astalli, provide free rooms to host men, women and families across the city. In 2020 more than 80 people of 14 different nationalities took advantage of this possibility. Many of these people eventually manage to achieve housing independence, a great step toward growth in dignity and social integration.

Pope Francis has not failed to send messages of encouragement to Centro Astalli: in 2016, for its 35th anniversary, and in 2020 to the entire Jesuit Refugee Service for its 40th; most recently his letter on the occasion of the inauguration of the photographic exhibition “Faces to the future – with refugees for a new us,” on November 16, 2021, for the 40th anniversary of the center. The journey continues. Although we can look back with the serenity of having worked so hard, of having opened paths and reaped fruits, no one thinks we can rest on our laurels. We have understood that the way in which a community, a city, a nation, a group of nations know how to welcome those who come to seek life, dignity and hope among them is a clear indication of their humanity. There is still a lot to do, an agenda for Centro Astalli and for all of us.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.1 art. 2, 0122: 10.32009/22072446.0122.2

[1].    Cf. Terre senza promesse. Storie di rifugiati in Italia, edited by Centro Astalli, Avagliano (Rm), 2011, 42; 61f.

[2].    Cf. the contribution of the Italian group to the European Conference of Jesuits in Worker and Popular Mission, held in Lanzo Torinese in 1986.

[3].    “Ho visto il Centro Astalli crescere. Intervista a Nawal”, in Servir, Speciale 10 anni, June 2006, 7. Servir is the monthly information magazine of the Centro Astalli Association, published regularly since 1996, when Francesco De Luccia was in charge.

[4].    Cf. La notte della fuga, Avagliano (Rm), 2005; Terre senza promesse. Storie di rifugiati in Italia, ibid., 2011; M. Mazzucco, Io sono con te. Storia di Brigitte, Turin, Einaudi, 2016.

[5].    Cf. C. Ripamonti – C. Tintori, La trappola del virus, Milan, Edizioni Terra Santa, 2021.

[6].    C. Ripamonti, “Centro Astalli: 40 anni a fianco dei rifugiati”, in Aggiornamenti Sociali, No. 10, 2021, 553-559.